Today I’m welcoming Roberta Rich to One More Page as part of the blog tour for the UK release of her debut novel, The Midwife of Venice.
Your debut historical fiction novel, The Midwife of Venice had its UK release on 16th February, please could you tell us a little about it?
Hannah Levi, a Jewish midwife in the Venetian ghetto in the 16th century, has gained renown for her skill in coaxing reluctant babies out of their mother’s bellies using her “birthing spoons”, a rudimentary form of forceps. One night a Christian nobleman, Conte Paolo di Padovani, appears at Hannah’s door with an dangerous request. He implores Hannah to help his dying wife and save their unborn child. But a Papal edict has made it a crime, punishable by death, for Jews to render medical treatment to Christians. Hannah refuses. The Conte offers her a huge sum of money, enough to enable her to sail to Malta to ransom her beloved husband, Isaac who has been captured at sea and is a slave of the Knights of St. John.
Against the Rabbi’s advice, Hannah goes with the Conte and delivers the infant, Matteo, a child who captures her heart. As she prepares to depart for Malta to rescue Isaac, she discovers that the baby’s uncles are plotting to murder the baby in order to seize the family fortune. In the absence of the Conte and his wife who are in Ferrara on urgent family matters, there is no one but Hannah to save Matteo. She enlists her sister, Jessica who is a courtesan and living as a Christian outside the ghetto. An outbreak of the plague traps them in Venice and makes them easy prey for the baby’s murderous uncles.
I really enjoyed the vivid descriptions of sixteenth century Venice in the novel; what drew you to the city as a setting?
There are many cities I love but Venice is my favourite because everyone is always lost. It is impossible to navigate the city. Even Venetians wander helplessly searching for their apartments or their favourite restaurant or friends they were supposed to meet at a café somewhere for a glass of prosecco.
Ian McEwen described this feeling of being hopelessly and utterly lost perfectly in The Comfort of Strangers, a very sinister book which haunts me years after I read it.
During the time period I am interested in― the 16th century―there were gangs of young boys with pine torches to lead you to your destination. I have a dreadful sense of direction so the fact that everyone is always lost in Venice makes me feel better about myself.
Next on the list of wonderful cities would be Istanbul. My characters, Hannah and Isaac are, in sequel, running a silk workshop in Constantinople. I must say, after three visits to Istanbul for research, I am enraptured by the city for its architecture, sense of design and colour, tasty food, and relentless carpet salesmen.
Yours is the first historical novel I’ve read with a detailed focus on midwifery; what drew you to the topic and how did you go about your research?
In 2007 my husband and I were on a walking tour of Venice, which began at the Rialto Bridge and ended in the Jewish ghetto. As I stood in the lovely square studying the tall, knife shaped building, I wondered about the lives of the thousands of people who had lived there over the 300 or so years of the ghetto’s history. I wondered in particular about the lives of the women and tried to imagine birthing children in such dark, confined, cramped living quarters. When we visited the ghetto museum I noticed a pair of lovely silver spoons and their position in the display case made me think of forceps. This is an interesting topic for me as my daughter was born with the aid of forceps. I started doing research and read about the Chamberlen family a medical family in the London who invented forceps but kept it a family secret for two hundred years.
I came across an early textbook of midwifery, a rather gruesome book written in the 1600’s (not recommended for those of child bearing age) called Justine, Court Midwife. Justine Siegemund’s obstetrical manual was one of the first to be written by a woman. Siegemund was midwife to many members of the Hapsburg family.
I am also fortunate to have a friend, Rhoda Friedricks, who is a professor of Early Modern history. Rhoda set me straight on number of things, including the plausibility of the ‘birthing spoons’ that Hannah invested. I actually thought of the idea of birthing spoons before I had the idea for Hannah’s character.
Hannah (the midwife of the title) is a great character and I admired her bravery. Please could you describe her in five words?
Nice Jewish girl. Lacks impulse control. (Sorry, that’s 6)
If you could visit any historical time and place, when and where would you go?
That would depend, of course, on my social class. We always assume when thinking about this question that we would be upper class and lead lives of privilege and wealth. If I was a wealthy Venetian woman, I would live in a Palladian villa, on the River Brenta, near Venice, and ride horses, cultivate a vineyard and have lots of children and lots of servants to look after them. If I was poor, I would live in present day Sweden.
The love story between Hannah and her husband Isaac is a wonderful and gripping element to the novel as they take risks and fight to be together; who are your favourite literary hero and heroine?
Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights captured my imagination when I first read it in high school. The wildness, the passion, the dreadful pull and pull of their tortured lives is inspiring.
What do you like to read when you’re not writing and researching?
My reading has changed since I started writing full time. I used to be a ‘drive-by reader’, pick up a book, read a chapter, finish it if I enjoyed it, or toss it aside if I didn’t. I read everything- thrillers, mysteries, historical, literary.
I am now more purposeful in my reading. I read anything I can get my hands on dealing with Venice and Constantinople in the 16th century. I wade through academic books which are often useful, not for the kind of ‘day to day’ details I need to make my settings and characters come alive, but good for a general overview, and a sense of the period in general. It helps me avoid the kind of cringe inducing mistakes I occasionally come across in other historical novels. Recently, I read a novel set in 15th century Rome that referred to Italy as a ‘country’. Italy was the new kid on the block in terms of unification―a collection of warring city states― and only became what we would think of as a country since the 19th century. Of course, I read a lot of historical novels. I admire Sandra Gulland, Fred Vargas and Mary Novik. I read with fear and trepidation. What if the book I just picked up is better written, smarter, wittier than anything I could have written? Guess what? Sometimes they are.
At the moment, I am reading a book I found in a hotel where I had breakfast last week in Manzanillo, Mexico― The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy. I am speechless with admirable for the economy of dialogue and complete lack of internal dialogue. McCarthy is a writer who isn’t afraid to trust his reader.
And finally … what can readers look forward to next from Roberta Rich?
I have been working like a maddened badger on the sequel. I still don’t have a title, or rather I have a title but it is so bad- i.e. obscure and difficult to remember, that I won’t tell you what it is. The first draft is complete and awaits my editor’s suggestions. There will be lots of revisions before it is complete and sees the light of day. Complete is a strange word to use in this context. Is a manuscript ever complete? Or are they like children?
Thank you Roberta!
You can find out more about Roberta and The Midwife of Venice on her website at: http://robertarich.com/
Please check out the other stops on The Midwife of Venice blog tour too!